by Kathie Smith
The surprising thing about Spike Jonze’s oeuvre is not only its volume but also its relative brevity. A prolific maker of music videos, shorts, and features, Jonze has, in a very short 20 years, manufactured an aesthetic aura unique to a generational and environmental moment—the generation decidedly Gen X (with Y sympathies) and the environment one entrenched in first world absurdities and melancholia. And for many of us in that general time and place, it’s hard to imagine a world without his strange and irresistible videos for Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” and Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” as well as his defining and idiosyncratic feature debut, Being John Malkovich. Jonze’s new film, Her, is another immersion in the same waters but with an added delicacy that softens its sci-fi exegesis into a collective unconscious hug for the digital age.
Director: Spike Jonze
Producers: Chelsea Barnard, Natalie Farrey, Daniel Lupi, Megan Ellison, Vincent Landay
Writer: Spike Jonze
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editors: Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen
Music: Arcade Fire, Owen Pallett
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde
Premiere: October 12, 2013 – New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 18, 2013
US Distributor: Warner Brothers
Although Jonze leaped into more sentimental terrain in 2009 with Where the Wild Things Are, going for something close to the nostalgic jugular, Her is an unabashed commitment to this tender landscape, with socially awkward attributes. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, the quintessential sad and lonely middle-aged man of the near future, filling his free time with video games, chat rooms, and surfing the web via voice command and audio playback. Theodore works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he, among hundreds of other employees, dictates personal, heartfelt letters for clients into a computer from where they are printed out in ersatz craft. Theodore seems to have an intuitive knack for conveying emotions for others, tapping into fuzzy affection and quirky charm, while, of course, struggling with his own.
Reeling from a soon to be finalized divorce and likely some professional humiliation, Theodore finds solace in a newly designed, highly charismatic OS that acts as your personal assistant available at the tap of your earpiece. Theodore’s artificially intelligent companion is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), designed to learn and adapt from shared experiences with the user. Samantha helps Theodore organize and prioritize, but more importantly she is a non-judgmental emotional outlet for Theodore. Samantha acts as a vehicle for Theodore to see the world with eyes unclouded from his insecurities, yet the experience also engenders a shared, uninhibited adventure interpreted by both Theodore and Samantha as falling in love.
The future, at least in this tech-saturated Los Angeles bubble, shimmers with prefab gloss and pulses with an ambience of isolated sadness. Jonze adorns every scene with devilish and humorous details that strike very close to present tense despite the pedigree that begs to predict an off-kilter version of our destiny. Public spaces are full of insular individuals—interacting with their devices—and larger than life digital images, dominating all analog forms of existence. The advertisement for the new OS, playing on a jumbotron-like indoor billboard that catches Theodore’s eye, resembles a peculiar piece of performance art. But for all that is shiny, there is also a very conscious attempt to counteract modern chic—men have adopted high-waisted wool pants (or are they cotton made to look like wool?) and Theodore keeps an old-school safety pin attached to his shirt pocket, adjusted to the depth that allows the camera of his super smartphone (and Samantha) to peer out via his point of view.
If this all sounds a little cheeky, and it most definitely is, but that is only half of the picture. Jonze couldn’t be further from wanting to make a joke out of Theodore and his struggles, showing a surprising amount of compassion that, in many ways, rescues Her from postmodern pretension. Masquerading as a shrug of a story about an emotionally disoriented man, Her contradicts the surface elements with a truly arrestingly commitment to candor. Instead of the cynical jabs that this material would be rife with in someone else’s hands, Jonze, who also wrote the screenplay, layers his film with a sincerity that oozes from the mise en scène, not only for Theodore but also for every persona, major or minor.
The title, more than an overt reference to Samantha, is a remark on the multifarious women in Theodore’s life who are equally mired in being alone in the crowd: his abrasive but surprisingly on point wife Catherine (Rooney Mara); a blind date who demands commitment after one drunken and flirtatious evening; and, most empathetically, Theodore’s down-to-earth friend Amy (Amy Adams). If Theodore’s relationship and romance with his OS is a little out of reach for our sympathies, Amy’s organic and openhearted enthusiasm for allowing yourself to feel joy, regardless of paradox, puts this leap of emotional logic firmly within our grasp.
When Samantha starts to realize her own abilities (like communicating “post-verbally”) and finding her own independence in the grid, Theodore starts to lose his traction, as does the film. It’s a shift that might be necessary to bring the story to its bittersweet finale, but it also abandons genuine human complexity—bolstered by Phoenix’s performance—to follow a route that states the obvious: relationships, even ones with your computer, are difficult. Our emotional and physical attachment to the interactive media in our pockets, our homes, and at work is no longer conjecture, and thankfully Her refrains from a narrow critique of our digital love conundrum, instead offering an observational inquiry into where this all might lead. If there is a message in Her, it is one contrary to the science fiction doctrine that unusually implies that computers will enable humans to be super-humans, and instead modestly states that computers might just make humans more human.